Nikola Tesla is one of the most prominent inventors globally and one of the most brilliant people of all time. He obtained around 300 patents during his life, mainly in the US, the UK, and Canada.
He dedicated his life and genius to his work, and if you’re reading this on your cell phone, part of the credit goes to Tesla because he was the first to develop the idea for this technology more than 100 years ago!
He wanted to illuminate and connect the world, metaphorically and literally. Even then, some people used to say that the 20th and 21st century was born in the mind of Nikola Tesla. Because of his selflessness, because he encouraged others to use his patents and inventions, they were right. And it all started in a tiny village in Lika County.
Early Years and Education
Nikola Tesla was born on the 10th of July in 1856 in the small village of Smiljan in Lika county, to a family of Serbian ethnicity. His father, Milutin, was an Orthodox priest, and his mother, Đuka (Georgina), also came from a family of priests. He had three sisters and one brother.
One story around his birth says that he was born around midnight during a lightning storm between the 9th and 10th. Allegedly, the midwife thought it was a bad omen, and Nikola’s mother dismissed that idea by telling her that he will be ‘a child of light’, and how right she was!
Although he lived primarily in the US as a naturalised US citizen later in life, he was famously quoted of how he is ‘proud of his Serbian origins and Croatian homeland’.
Tesla started attending school in Smiljan, where he learned German, mathematics and religion. Later, the family moved to the nearby town Gospić, where he attended Realschule, a secondary and lower education gymnasium. He graduated from a higher education gymnasium in Rakovac, near Karlovac.
There, upon seeing demonstrations by his physics professor, he developed an interest in electricity.
He started studying at the Graz University of Polytechnic but never graduated. Tesla moved back to Gospić in 1879, after his father passed away, and worked as a professor at his old school. A year later, he tried to get to Prague University, but he wasn’t accepted, and he moved to Budapest, Hungary, to work on the construction of the first telephone network.
Coming to the US and first patents
Following the recommendation of his Hungarian boss, he moved to Paris and Strasbourg to work at Thomas Edison’s company, Edison Machine Works. Edison’s associate Charles Batchellor recognised Tesla’s skills and brought him to the US in 1884. Just a year later, Tesla left Edison due to disagreements over a payment.
Apparently, he ‘misinterpreted’ the American humour when a manager in Edison offered him a 50 thousand dollar bonus, the equivalent of 1.4 million today, to design ‘24 different types of standard machines’, to fix the issue on the SS Oregon, the record-breaking British passenger ship, which was known as the fastest liner on the Atlantic at the time. The ship had both of its lighting machines disabled and its sailing was delayed.
Tesla delivered what he was tasked to do, but the following was quoted in his biography:
‘During this period I designed twenty-four different types of standard machines with short cores and of uniform pattern which replaced the old ones. The Manager had promised me fifty thousand dollars on the completion of this task but it turned out to be a practical joke. This gave me a painful shock and I resigned my position.’
Tesla later found a patent attorney, and through him, he met with the first of many investors and started his own company called Tesla Electric Light & Manufacturing. For them, he was designing an arc lighting system, a new and growing segment of the industry, mainly used for outdoor lighting.
He was a workaholic, constantly thinking about how to improve things. It was then when he started to patent the first of his hundreds of inventions.
The first investors weren’t interested in Tesla’s ideas beyond their initial task, for new motors and electrical transmission equipment, and decided to go in another, safer direction. Tesla was left alone and broke, which became an unfortunate pattern in his life. Investors even took possession of some of his patents since he had applied for them under the company name.
But, even then, before cell phones and the internet, a person like Tesla and the work he had done became well known in industry circles. His personality and appearance surely added to his charisma, since he was a tall man, with ‘noble bearing’ and always dressed to impress.
The vision and the most famous inventions
Despite the hardships he faced, Tesla always focused solely on his work and developing his ideas. In 1887, he developed an induction motor that ran on alternating current, AC. He was a strong advocate for this type of electricity, which, once again, put him on the opposing side of Edison, who advocated direct current, DC.
He sold his patent for alternating current to George Westinghouse for 60 thousand dollars, which would be one million dollars in today’s money.
The rivalry between DC and AC ended with the merging of two companies, Edison Electric and Thompson-Houston Electric Company. Together they formed General Electric, and AC became a standard.
In the meantime, Tesla was already working on new ideas. At the beginning of the 1890s, he started researching high-frequency currents and came up with the Tesla coil, an electrical resonant transformer.
The invention was a huge success because it was visible, and the general public was highly impressed. The ‘lightings’ that the Tesla coil makes are impressive even today, and you can see them on a big scale in the Technical Museum in Zagreb.
He patented the Tesla coil in 1891. That same year, he became a naturalised citizen of the United States. Tesla moved his laboratories across the USA, following opportunities and constantly working on his ideas. He also travelled to show his inventions.
For instance, together with Westinghouse, he was a big success at The World Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, where they introduced the alternating current.
The same year in St. Louis, following his newly created Tesla coils, he presented radio communication and advised the use of AC on Niagara Falls hydroelectric power plant.
In august 1895, just two days after the plant started to work, and again thanks to Tesla, the first hydroelectric power plant in Croatia, known as Jaruga Hydroelectric Power Plant, was built on river Krka in central Dalmatia.
In 1898 he once again made the news by demonstrating a remote-controlled robotic boat. Tesla offered this invention to the US government, but they weren’t ready for this novelty, and he was mocked and rejected.
Fame, awards, death and legacy
In 1912, Tesla and Edison were to receive a Nobel prize for physics, but the decision was later changed. Tesla thought he wasn’t the right man to receive this prize because his work was more inspirational than methodical and applicable. He was later nominated once again in the 1930s.
He did receive many other awards, like the Edison Medal from the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1917. But the genius of his work is even more emphasised later, with the naming of many important awards worldwide after him.
In 1931, at the age of 75, he was interviewed and featured on the cover of Time magazine and got dozens of congratulatory letters from colleagues and scientists, including Albert Einstein.
He was a popular man, ‘an electrical wizard’ as journalist Samuel Cohen called him in his interview for Electrical Experimenter Magazine in 1915. In this interview, Tesla told him ‘that the day will soon come when he will show the world that the transmission of power and speech without the aid of any wires is possible.’
Tesla dedicated his life and money to his work, often going broke and then starting all over again. That kind of life took a toll on his physical and mental health. He died of heart failure on 7th January 1943 at the age of 86. Ironically, Tesla died at the hotel New Yorker which used DC until the 1960s, because some of the early electricity adopters had stayed on the direct current.
Before his death, he worked on a new invention that he called ‘death beam’. The morning after his death, his nephew went to his hotel room only to find out that some papers went missing and his notebook in which Tesla wrote his ideas. An investigation was opened but turned up no results.
Two thousand people attended his funeral, and the New York City mayor read a eulogy. Tesla was cremated and buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery. In 1952, his nephew Sava Kosanović moved his ashes and belongings to Belgrade, Serbia. Tesla’s ashes are displayed in a gold plated sphere on a marble pedestal in the Nikola Tesla Museum.
Tesla’s legacy is not only his patents and inventions, he also wrote a number of books and articles. He was eager to share his knowledge with the world. His name and work are widely used in popular culture, in films, theatre, games and music.
Today, most of the world knows about Tesla Inc, a company by Elon Musk and his electric vehicle. Tesla also became a measure for magnetic induction or magnetic flux density and a name of a crater on the moon, a small planet and the name of over 120 streets in Croatia, among others.
At its session on July 21, 2021, the Croatian National Bank decided on the final motive proposal for the design of future Croatian euro coins. The proposed motifs are a chessboard, a geographical map of Croatia, a kuna, a Glagolitic alphabet and Nikola Tesla.
Tesla was a man ahead of his time. Many of his thoughts and ideas are still waiting to be grasped. Let us finish this article with his own words, hoping that they will inspire you to find out more about this great mind.